Because comedy is such a “more is more” art form, editing is a highly underrated skill in the comedian’s repertoire. An illustration: When was the last time you heard the phrase, “Sure, the punchline was funny, but the joke was too short”? Now, compare that to the number of times you’ve thought or read variations on “this sketch goes on forever.” Laughter is a mighty intoxicating substance, and it pushes some of our brightest comedic minds to pile on when they should be dialing back, suffocating a solid premise or good writing with the hope that the laughter will grow exponentially with each iteration. It’s for this reason that improv students are often taught to end a scene before it’s reached what feels like a natural conclusion. In that moment, the audience won’t care whether what they just saw had a distinct beginning, middle, and end—but they will care if the scene refuses to finish.
Determining when enough is enough is a tricky prospect, but one which the folks behind the TV version of Comedy Bang! Bang! mastered as the show’s first season progressed. In tonight’s finale episode, “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Wears A Hawaiian Shirt,” that involves maintaining the pace of the interview segments while also making sure that what makes it to the final cut is the absolute funniest material—for instance, host Scott Aukerman’s game of asking Yankovic the dullest interview questions possible, and Yankovic reciprocating with suitably boring answers. In a recent episode of the podcast that inspired the TV show, Aukerman admitted that plenty of Comedy Bang! Bang! footage was left on the cutting room floor, but the way the finale smoothly transitions from segment to segment, the cuts are hardly noticeable. What’s left is a sleek, smart half-hour that manages to express all of the disparate concepts buzzing around in its creators’ heads, without any of those ideas overstaying their welcome.
And that’s been true of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s entire first season, a near-perfect 10-episode run that’s been a shining beacon of originality in a particularly uneventful TV offseason (save for usual suspects like BreakingBad and Louie, or almost-there surprises like Bunheads). And part of that success has been in the way the show manages to make phrases like “shining beacon of originality” sound utterly ridiculous. Anticipating the reviews (or probably just acquainted with the adjectives used to describe his work and the work of his talented stable of friends and colleagues), Aukerman made a running gag of having his onscreen alter ego describe the show and its sense of humor as “offbeat,” “irreverent,” and “unexpected.” Of course it’s irreverent—it’s a comedy show. Are you tuning in to see the co-creator of Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis do 22 minutes of reverent comedy? Aukerman’s the type who respects what he ironically calls “the biz” while also seeing through the utter phoniness of it all, and when Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t being utterly silly, it’s also delivering a cutting critique of the useless fluff that accumulates around people who are funny for a living.
The show gets literal with that conceit in “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Wears A Hawaiian Shirt,” revealing the entirety of Comedy Bang! Bang! to be a computer-generated illusion, the post-production product of Aukerman, one-man bandleader Reggie Watts, and a team of green-suited minions. It’s all controlled by a Looney Tunes-style “on/off” switch, a prop which saves the gag from a creeping sense of pretentiousness while also enabling a hysterical sequence of Aukerman and Chef Bellini Pastafangu (David Cross) cooking up a noisy dish of green shapes. In its effort to efficiently use every part of the comedy buffalo, the runner even makes room for a touch of nastiness, as Yankovic’s masked, spandex-suited stand-in turns out to be Jon Heder, fallen so far from his Napoleon Dynamite heyday that he’s now anonymously supplying a body over which a more famous person can be pasted. Comedy Bang! Bang! knows that show business is as cruel as it is frivolous.
But it’s to the show’s credit that it never lets its satirical impulses deflate its ample sense of fun. As much as Comedy Bang! Bang! feels like a logical extension of the absurdist, occasionally cynical Mr. Show sensibility Aukerman helped cultivate, its revolving door of interlopers and sentient props belie a debt to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. There’s a legitimate sense that anything can happen on Comedy Bang! Bang!, with or without a green screen: Kerri Kenney can produce a giant potato chip bearing a perfect likeness of Erik Estrada; Yankovic can bounce his accordion into the stratosphere; Buddy “Cake Boss” (“CAKE BOSS!”) Valastro can use his gift/curse of the second sight to predict the messy circumstances of Aukerman’s demise.
That it manages to cram the square peg of these infinite possibilities into the round hole of the talk-show format is all the more impressive; it’s the unstoppable momentum of a talk show, however, that makes sure Comedy Bang! Bang! doesn’t spend too much time banging away at one particular peg. It’s a stream-of-consciousness flow nonetheless dictated by the established rhythms of late night. Those rhythms receive their most conventional interpretation from Tenacious D’s appearance in the finale, but its turn in the traditional musical-guest slot veers into strange soon enough.
Yet there’s no excess to “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Wears A Hawaiian Shirt” or the nine other episodes that precede it. The show does what it does well—tweak talk-show conventions, create interactions between colorful characters, drop the occasional film-trailer parody or computer-assisted freakout—and knows when to get out of the way of the next segment. It requires a good deal of confidence to make that work, a quality which Comedy Bang! Bang! has possessed in spades since its première episode. (Also possessed in generous amounts: promotional considerations provided by the Sullivan’s family of products.) If we’re lucky, we’ll receive a second season of this well-cultivated madness. If we’re not, 10 excellent episodes is a perfect legacy for a cast and crew that knows the value of quitting while you’re ahead like Comedy Bang! Bang!’s does.
Episode grade: A
Season grade: A-